‘…his hat…’ –
A magus should have a hat, I suppose, and any good king should have a crown. This, I would say, is the latter – or, maybe, both. A crown, in this context, is defined as ‘A circular ornamental headdress worn by a monarch as a symbol of authority, usually made of or decorated with precious metals and jewels’. And this is certainly that – although I am fairly sure that it is a crown placed over a hat. The former is indeed ‘a circular ornamental headdress’, with stylised leafy tynes (the pointy bits), with black pearls at the top of each, and white pearls on either side. The circular band is richly decorated, set with brooch-like elements beneath the tynes, each of which is inset with a ruby. In between these are enamel roses, which look grey and white, but if you can get really close, are actually a deep turquoise and white, with a pearl set in the centre of each.
The hat, over which the crown has been place, is conical. There is a red band top and bottom. At the top a pinnacle is created by short strings of pearls, linked with gold, and pearls also hang from golds ornaments around the band at the bottom. The central section is made of a deep black fabric, embroidered, or in some way appliqued, with filigree gold decorations. The amount of gold from which the headdress as a whole has been wrought is quite staggering, and speaks to the wealth – and therefore the standing – of the king who wears it. But each red band is also embroidered – or appliqued – with an inscription, both of which are informative.
The top one reads, quite simply, ‘BALTAZAR’. This is, of course, the king’s name. At this scale, we can see how brilliantly it has been painted, the basic form in a butterscotch colour, highlighted with cream where it catches the light. This seems to flare slightly at the brightest points – as do the thicker blobs of paint which form highlights on the embossed rings which frame the inscription. From a distance this simply glows, and makes it look like gold.
Each of the three kings has a name, of course – Casper, Melchior and Balthasar – and once upon a time I knew where the names came from. But now I know more, I realise that it is not so obvious, so to makes things simple I’m going to go with the explanation from the Encyclopedia Britannica (online), which states that, ‘In about the 8th century the names of three Magi—Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa—appear in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper).’ However, different traditions have different names – the churches in Syria, Ethiopia and Armenia have three completely different sets. And even within the Western Church there is no entirely fixed way to distribute the names – although most commonly Balthasar was seen as the youngest, and was supposed to have come from Ethiopia.
The inscription which runs along the bottom of the hat tells us something altogether different. It reads, ‘IENNI*GOSSART:DEMABV…’ before becoming indecipherable under the crown (which is why I think this is a crown placed over a hat). This inscription tells us something which I think many of you knew already: the painting is by Jan Gossaert. This is his signature. Like many artists he has a nickname, although it is not one in common use nowadays – ‘Mabuse’, after his birthplace, Maubeuge (hence ‘DEMABV’), in French-speaking Hainault. This now straddles the French-Belgian border – so no, it is not east of London on the Central Line. Gossaert did not come from Essex. But if he was born in French-speaking Hainault, why was he called ‘Gossaert’? Well, he wasn’t. That’s not how he signed his name. He signed himself ‘Jenni Gossart’, as you can see from the painting, which we would interpret as ‘Jean Gossart’ – entirely French. However, according to Lorne Campbell’s superb catalogue entry, to which I am entirely indebted, and which is online in it entirety, ‘the Dutch translation ‘Jan Gossaert’ gradually gained currency during the second half of the 19th century and became standard during the 20th century.’ The 19th Century has so much to answer for. However, now we know the name of this king (or magus), and of the artist, what more is there to say? Well, plenty: we haven’t even finished with Balthasar yet…
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